Northwest America and our adventuring crew

I find myself still settling back into being at home after our big trip away (check out our photos along the way here: ). It's been about 10 days since we returned, and we were away for 22 days - not that long really. But it was a full three weeks!  Life at home is full and busy but in a rather different style.

One thing I love is that we are raising little travellers. It's a deliberate choice, and does mean that other we prioritise things differently from many families, but it's something I am grateful for. And am reminding myself of, as I look at our broken oven in the kitchen where I type this ;) We're still lucky that it's possible, absolutely, and it requires determination. One car, not two. Waiting and budgeting for that new oven. Planning and tracking and dreaming. We choose travel, and I love that.

When we were returning through Australian border control, Cedar was telling the customs officer that his backpack was from Japan. But that we just came from America. They do find it exciting, but it's also a repeating theme of their life experience. While they each had the same challenges and occasional meltdowns when travelling as they do at home, all of the kids found things to like and enjoy in the different places we visited. And I hope we are also teaching them that some family activities are motivated by us, the parents, and what we would like to experience. (I may have had to explain that to them a few times when they all wanted to just stay in playing Minecraft...)

It feels like I'm writing with a slightly melancholy tone, though it's just that I have a lot of brain clutter going on... pulling out specific thoughts is like putting my hand into a bowl of spaghetti to retrieve a lost tooth. Or something like that, anyway. The 'back to normal' transition, still, perhaps, with a normal that is fairly chaotic at the best of times, LOL.

So, our Northwest trip, the quick overview version: We flew from Melbourne, via Auckland to San Francisco, where we stayed at Fisherman's Wharf. After four days we took an overnight train to Portland, Oregon. Cedar thought the sleeper train was the best thing ever! He was so excited. Unfortunately Amtrak lost our luggage, so when we arrived at Portland we had to dash out to buy underwear for everyone and a few essential changes of clothes. Our Portland hotel had given us a huge room upgrade, though, so that was amazing.

After a few days in Portland, we took the train to Vancouver, BC (Canada). Arriving in Canada in almost the middle of the night was interesting... Poor Cedar had to be woken up to go through customs in the train station. Vancouver was a full three days, and then an early departure to catch the train again. This time to Seattle, Washington, where we spent the next 6 days. Finally, we flew back to San Francisco for one last day - organising ourselves and last minute souvenirs - before flying home. The kids loved flying, as well. Independent entertainment control was probably the highlight there ;)

Things we learned along the way:
  • People will still stop and offer assistance if you seem to look confused while trying to find street signs. So kind :)
  • Pork Belly makes a pretty spectacular cubano. SO yum.
  • Good coffee can be found in America. Really. (And by 'good' I mean a strong espresso / latte to our personal taste). You just have to be more deliberate / discerning about what you are looking for than in Melbourne. Though I am pretty fussy anywhere, so I'm used to that ;)
  • Exact coin change for a bus ticket is a lot more tricky when you have to buy five of them. Sorry Vancouver, that didn't really work for us.
  • Raccoons are really cute.
  • A submarine tour is really not a great place for a strong / heavy 10 year old to have a meltdown. Especially if they run to a schedule.
  • Alaska Airlines were awesome. Even though it was our shortest flight, the kids were invited into the cockpit and the flight attendant gave them all "wings" pins to wear. Plus everyone was super nice.
  • It's fun to make friends in new places. That was a real highlight for all the kids.

Two little raspberries - Twin newborn photography

Newborn Photography Twin Baby Girls

I love baby photos, especially slice-of-life style pics at home, or gorgeous portrait shots. But nothing beats the newbie newness of hospital photos for me, babies change so quickly and the time spent after their birth is a squishy evolution between growing babies, and babies growing you.

Meet Scarlett and Winter. Super sweeties.

Sweetie pie, a new little friend

This is Charli, a gorgeous little girl who was born last week to a lovely friend of mine :)

I love taking squishy newborn still-in-hospital new photos, snapshots for loved ones, there's nothing quite like these first few days!


The part and the whole of our #autism family

So, things were up in the air for our family for about 6 weeks or so regarding this potential huge change. There was waiting. Exploring. Investigating options. Weighing benefits. Cognitive testing. And my mind racing, worrying, analysing, as we gradually came to the crunch of making the decision about Ash's schooling.

On the one hand, Ash's emotions were telling me that he needed something more than what he currently has. Whether that is about support, therapies or simply insight, we needed to think about what was best for him. So, it was recommended that we consider this particular school - a limited time offer, as he is at the upper age limit of enrolment already, being in year 4 this year.

Ash and I did a school tour, and he did two trial mornings in the classroom there. He liked it. He got along well with the other kids in the class. They liked him. The school suggested he might begin full time in just a few weeks. We had one full day trial left to complete before making the final decision.

Then Cedar got chicken pox (mildly, as he is immunised), and I let them know that Ash had been exposed. This postponed the full day trial for a couple of weeks. And in the meantime, my brain kept ticking over a million miles a minute. I had a meeting with the principal at the kids' current school. I had conversations with another school parent who has a great understanding of Autism spectrum kids. I had a conversation with my daughter's psychologist. I had a conversation with Ash's psychologist. I did research. Ben and I discussed the pros and cons, the costs and benefits - both literally, and to each of us, as well as to Ash (primarily, loss of his aide support). I wrote lists. Talked it out, juggled my thoughts, watched my kids.

And then I sat in a cafe in a shopping centre, with a coffee next to me, and wrote two emails to the specialist school - one to the principal and one to the teacher. Ash would not be changing schools. There was no need to complete the trial days. Their information has been invaluable (and I've since had another conversation with them getting more tips and advice). But our family is made up of more than one 9 year old boy. He is not even the only one on the Autism Spectrum. And, as completely as I love him and want to help him, we are one whole family unit.

You see, I'd been on a rollercoaster of decision making, and things were not crystal clear or self-evident as to what would be the best choice for Ash. But it was like I had blinkers on. I was looking at Ash as an individual, and what might be ideal for him on his own. I knew it would have a high personal cost to me if he changed schools, but I felt that I, as his mother, could sacrifice 15 months of my life for the benefit of my beautiful son.

And then I stopped. Ash is not an only child. We are not a family unit of 2 or 3. There are five of us here. It's not *just* about him, and it's not *just* about me. Sienna is 11.5 years old, a tween girl with Aspergers and ADHD, going into high school next year. How would it affect her if the pressure was on each morning to get ready early, quickly, quickly, or Ash will be late for his school a half hour drive away? How would it affect her if I am unavailable for 2 hours per day? If I feel too frustrated and tired by the juggling act to be a listening ear? As well as practical details, will I be able to take her to her high school transition program, an integration program for additional needs, if I also have to drive Ash in the opposite direction?

Cedar is 5 years old. He'll be 6 in five weeks, and he is in his first year of primary school. Next year he will be in year 1, and if Ash changed schools Cedar would be rushed out of the car, expected to walk in to school on his own, 15 minutes early every day. Is this really a good time for my energies to be so devoted to one child? With no guarantees? As well as all that, while weighing up these decisions our 1 year old dog Sparrow got very sick. She had a sudden and extreme bacterial infection, and I spent a week back and forth to the vet, getting meds into her and sitting next to her almost constantly.

I realised there was also the literal cost to our entire family - a sudden vet bill would be impossible to pay if I tied up all our available family income in private school fees for one child. And with my time commitment to driving 2 hours a day, I would hardly be able to earn any income to help pay for it. Even for Ash's sake, what about the school fulfilled his needs? Would it be worth it? What would happen at the end of 5 terms when he had to return to mainstream school, but no longer had aide support? And would this help when 5 terms later he had to transition again - a third time - to high school?

I know this seems like a big old brain dump, and it is - (epic, in fact, I'm impressed if anyone has read this far!) but it is still only a fraction of the thought rollercoaster I was riding for those 6 weeks. I just wanted to record the conflict, the unknown and unseen by most, that I know so many parents and families go through when weighing up decisions they need to make for their children. Professionals might tell you they think something will benefit your child, and our instinct is to jump in with both feet - yes, of course, let's do that! But even the loveliest professionals are not part of YOUR family, and they don't know the whole story of your everyday life. No one is as well equipped to make these decisions as you are. 

And there might be parts of the decisions you have to make over the years that are about you. Self-care, some call it, or your needs as an individual and not just a mother (or father). We might be reluctant to add these to the scales, on one side or the other, but really, we must. As their primary carers, our wellbeing - or not - at the end of the day is likely to have a stronger effect on our kids than we know. Your happiness has weight. You matter too.

Even though we decided not to make this big change, for Ash to move schools, it was not a decision not to change. We decided to take what we have learnt from the specialist school, take the conversations I had with school representatives and other professionals, and make smaller changes.

Our action plan now is:
  • Weekly 'excursions' to reward (and incentivize) Ash for attending school every day of the week, something that is hard for him
  • The development of a Sensory room at school and a strategy for including more sensory input into his day.
And that's it. Of course, each of these two things means budgeting, appointments for planning and meetings with school, among other things. But they are two key outcomes of this experience. They will both benefit others as well as Ash, and we are still showing him that what is best for him, matters to us.

It's all a learning curve, after all.

Today, bewildered - #autism and the boy

This boy... so incredibly lovable, he has my head spinning at the moment. Today was a particularly epic day. The kind that hindsight would advice to skip, stay in bed, don't even try. But who knows that, in the morning, right?

So, aside from the (not uncommon) reluctance to get out of bed and face school, the 75 minute separation process once I did get him there (all three kids that constant five minutes late), the skeleton onesie pyjamas being worn at school all day and the kicking, fighting, biting, beside-himself meltdown after the final bell this afternoon... aside from that, there's this feeling. The word that fits, I think most accurately, is bewildered.

I know this kid, and I know him really well. But I still find myself bewildered, wondering one day (yesterday to be precise) if a certain pattern will be our new status quo, and then flipping that back again the very next. It's not about the separation anxiety, at least, not specifically. And not about the meltdown - as amplified as his response was, there was a catalyst there.

I think the hardest thing to get my head around is the inconsistency. I am bewildered by what is different from one morning to the next. By the need to make decisions about what is best for this amazing, complex 9 year old boy, with conflicting evidence from day to day, week to week, about what those best things might be. He can be such a joy to have around, and he adores me - his anchor, his mum - like nothing else in this world. But these things won't give him an education. Hugs and teddies aren't going to make him friends. Social thinking can't be learned from one person alone.

At the moment, we are part way through the intake process at Cheshire school, a transitional school for kids with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, for Ash, as recommended by his psychologist. It's an investigative process, where actual enrolment isn't decided until a certain stage of the process, and we are not there quite yet. We're part way through. So, there have been a lot of considerations to think about, and the possibility of big change ahead. But the possibility of it not happening is there too. It's up in the air. Good things on both sides - the change, or not to change. The private, specialist school, the increased transitions, the hectic schedule for me as the driver (an extra two hours of driving a day), but the chance that this is what will work for him. And the possibility that it won't.

The principal / psychologist from the school observed Ash in his current school and classroom the other day, and we spoke a little later that afternoon. There were a lot of good points, and I agree fully with them all - he engages well with his peers, with assistance can work on the required tasks, seems generally liked by others, doesn't seem anxious within the classroom space. She could see a few things we'd spoken about as well, but the areas of concern were more subtle. These are all true things. I started to wonder if maybe this new school idea won't be the necessary goal. I hope we can avoid the big change, despite the potential benefits, for the sake of appreciating the things Ash likes about where he is at, things he would have to sacrifice to change schools. And, to be brutally honest, save the money, and driving.

But then, today, pyjamas, the morning refusal again, and the chair-tossing, workbook-ripping, heart-breaking meltdown over the end of the day, over time running out, and him not being able to do his show and tell after all. Just a final straw, on a hard day. The red beast took over, he says, and while it took half an hour to come back to a calm place, five minutes after we got home he was all hugs and apology. He's a beautiful boy. And I can easily see it. Tackling life is just a bit too much to ask sometimes.